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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > June 2017 > The new ethics of war

The new ethics of war

What happens when our military machines are not only unmanned but autonomous?

On Wednesday 25th October 1854, the 4th and 13th Light Dragoons, 17th Lancers and 8th and 11th Hussars combined to create a cavalry unit known as the Light Brigade. Led by James Brudenell, the seventh Earl of Cardigan, they undertook an action so disastrous that it entered the annals of heroism and— courtesy of Alfred Tennyson—poetry. A series of mistakes made the Light Brigade, with the earl galloping at its head, charge the length of a valley directly into the mouths of more than 50 cannon and 20 battalions of Russian infantry. It is a part of the Crimean War just as memorable as Florence Nightingale walking the wards of Scutari Hospital, shedding the beams of her lamp into the painful nights.

The Light Brigade was shot to pieces; there were 278 dead, missing and wounded; 335 horses were killed; only 195 men survived with their mounts—less than half the force. Cardigan, who miraculously survived despite galloping the length of the “Valley of Death” in both directions, hacking at Russian troops as he went, afterwards took himself aboard his yacht in Balaclava harbour and had a champagne dinner.

Marshal Pierre Bosquet, a French commander who witnessed the action, famously remarked, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie.

This incident offers a number of startling contrasts 163 years on, over a century and a half in which war has continually evolved. Back then, in the mid-19th century, a group of lords, pursuing the traditional aristocratic occupation of war-making, were leading men born to the plough, the sheepfold and the forge—or, increasingly, the factory—into the mouths of cannon.

In 1914, the British Army was still divided on class grounds between officers and men. But the First World War was not a galloping war: weapons had changed, and machine guns and cavalry did not mix. Tanks were introduced late on in that conflict, but their full impact on the battlefield was only felt in the Second World War, where their mobility shaped battles in the Western Desert and on the Eastern Front, and—of course—their speed enabled the Wehrmacht’s initial Blitzkrieg.

Vietnam then brought the helicopter to the frontline; it has been integral to troop movement and offensive operations ever since. In the battles fought across South-East Asia in the 1960s, technology took a more than usually sinister turn when the jungles were sprayed with Agent Orange to strip their foliage in the hope of revealing Viet Cong troops and supply lines. The television-reported Gulf wars of 1990–91 and 2003–11 showed a new version of the soldier—a man wearing armour once more, but highly technologised, wired up, in full communication with comrades and commanders, donning night-vision goggles and carrying weapons of incomparably greater power than his predecessors, and indeed his opponents.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s June issue: Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Martha Gill and Helen Pidd examine the election chances of the three main political parties. Wheatcroft explores the Tories’ remarkable ability to rise from the ashes and assert dominance, Gill questions why the Lib Dem revival isn’t quite getting off the ground and Pidd examines Labour’s prospects after poor performances in the recent council and mayoral elections. Also in this issue: Christine Ockrent asks if France’s new President Emmanuel Macron can charm the parts of France that didn’t initially vote for him, AC Grayling assesses whether the rise and rise of drone warfare warrants a new ethical code for conflict and Francine Stock explores whether Pixar can continue to captivate modern audiences.
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